There’s an old joke about a rabbi, a priest, and a minister. The three leaders are speaking on a panel at a conference and are all asked the same question: “What would you like people to say about you after you die?” The priest answers first and says he hopes people will talk about how he was able to shepherd his flock and help them understand the love that God has for them as Catholics. The minister then says that he hopes he will be remembered for being a caring and thoughtful man who brought many people closer to Christ. The rabbi answers last; after a pause, she says “I would want people at my funeral to say: ‘look! She’s breathing!’”
Joking aside, the question of what we hope is said about our lives is a fascinating one. Each of us leaves a legacy—and the new year is a wonderful time to think about what that will look like.
One of the things that always strikes me about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that in some ways the holidays can make us feel like we are starting the new year with a clean slate. But to think like that suggests that our actions and words only have a fleeting impact on others and on the world in which we live. The reality is that all of what we do, i.e. the good and the bad which will ultimately comprise our legacy, is created over our lifetimes and felt for a long time.
In our fast-paced world, many of us don’t have the luxury to reflect on what we do well. Instead, we only find time to dwell on our missteps, often rewinding in our minds those things we regret. But, there’s value in also focusing on where we do well and where we do good. It can help us chart our course for being our best selves moving forward.
A centuries-old tradition that some Jews participate in is writing an ethical will—a document that articulates values to pass on to future generations. This is certainly a worthwhile practice. But whether we write such a document or not – all of us can at least take a few minutes to focus on what it is that matters to us: if we were going to write a personal vision statement, what would that look like?
I recently read a graphic novel called On Purpose by Vic Strecher. Dr. Strecher points out that having a purpose has many benefits; focusing on something beyond our egos helps us grow, helps makes us more resilient, and can actually help prevent disease. In reading this book I realized that charting our purpose in a forward direction is how we can work to make sure that we ultimately have the legacy we want. To paraphrase psychiatrist Victor Frankl, it’s not just about having the means to live, but having meaning to live.
This blog post is a shortened version of my Yom Kippur sermon which can be viewed here.
The majesty and transcendence of the High Holidays are behind us. Rosh Hashanah with its coronation of God and Yom Kippur with the liturgical immersion into the Holy of Holies of the Holy Temple has passed. The machzorim, the special prayer books, have been put back into the storage rooms. The shofar has been put back on to the shelf and the grocery stores will stop ordering extra quantities of apples and honey until next year. That seat you spent so many hours in at synagogue (or the seat that you purchased but barely saw during these past two weeks) will also resume its normal life of being unoccupied. The cushion will resettle, the indentations will be erased and dust will begin to collect. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.
What would happen if you didn’t let your seat at synagogue go unused this new year? What would happen if you came back and visited that seat when no ticket was needed to sit in it. The machzorim are put away but in their stead you will find the siddur, the year round prayer book. Do you believe your experience during the next round of High Holidays would be different if you were more than an annual visitor?
People sometimes compare the High Holidays to the Superbowl. No matter if you are a fan all year or even know the rules of the game there is something captivating about tuning into the game on the big day and knowing you are joining hundreds of millions of other people who are doing the same thing. The comparison has a point but it also falls short.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not built like the Superbowl. They are not built with an easy ability to tap into with no prior experience or knowledge. There are no multi-million dollar commercials in the midst of the service or professional athletes facing off against each other. Instead there is the sublime poetry and prose of the prayers. There are the melodies, some very old and some very new, that are meant to enter our heart and soul and move us in a religious experience. There is the introspection and reflection that finds its peak during the High Holidays. This is not the sort of thing that can be readily experienced at its fullest with no prior background. The ticket you purchased gains you entry into the building and a seat to sit on but if that is the only time you sit in that seat all year you very will might find yourself unable to access the moment you have paid for and craving to find some of its relevancy in your life.
So this year let us find time to fill that seat throughout the year. It’s alright to dip your toes in gently and build as time progresses. Build familiarity with the rhythm of Jewish ritual and prayer. Stretch those muscles of introspection and reflection. By doing so you may find that the next Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be an entirely different experience. Your seat will recognize you, the cushion will not be dusty, the prayer book will be an old friend and the melodies will penetrate your heart and lift you in soulful meaning.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is finished for the year but your seat will not be lonely for the next eleven months. Shanah Tovah, a good, sweet year of meaning making and spiritual growth to all.
A while back I suggested a unique way of doing the chesbon nefesh (soul’s accounting) we are expected to do this time of year. The tools I suggested are useful year round, but they are timely during this season of Teshuva (repentance).
As I understand them, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) rests on two central themes: Gratitude and Forgiveness. Whatever your observance, from marathon synagogue attendance to just fasting, or even nothing at all, give yourself the opportunity to consider your personal connection to these two themes.
Gratitude: Most of us are thankful for family and friends, but what else? Consider making a list (or take turns, one at a time, with a friend) of the multitude of things and experiences you are grateful for. It tends to be the things past, say number 5 or number 10 that surprise us; a smile will appear on your face as your list gets longer and longer.
TASK: Make a Gratitude list:
A) List 100 things you are grateful for?
B) Share your list with someone.
As it turns out, sharing the sentiment of gratitude has a positive effect on both the speaker and the listener.
Forgiveness: The power of forgiveness is radical. Yes, forgiveness helps to heal relationships, but the ability to forgive, even when it is undeserved, has documented health benefits. One Harvard study back in 2004 looked at women who’s husbands had cheated on them. Those who (somehow) forgave, even though forgiveness was underserved, had better muscle tone, lower blood pressure, stronger hearts, and were healthier along other markers as well.
When we hold on to anger, we feel like we’re hurting the person that has harmed us. However valid the anger, and friends, there is much in the world to be angry about, we do quite a bit of damage to ourselves with the poison of anger.
TASK: Forgive and be Forgiven.
A) Approach someone with whom you were short-tempered, or someone who wanted more time and attention from you than you shared. Apologize and let him or her know that you’ll make a stronger effort next time.
B) When you consider “forgiveness” are you secretly hoping that someone who has hurt you will apologize to you? He or she may never do that. Try mightily to let go of the anger, even if your anger is completely justified. The truth is that the persons who have wronged us may never come around to making proper amends. For your own benefit, try to let go of the anger you have taken on because of someone else’s poor actions. To forgive might be the single most difficult thing, and simultaneously the most powerful thing, you can do for yourself.
A minor cultural kerfuffle flared up recently about airline seats and the question of whether to recline or not.
On a United Airlines flight last month between Newark and Denver, a passenger installed a device called a “Knee Defender” which prevented the woman in front of him from reclining her seat. He was asked to remove it, he refused, flight attendants got involved, tensions escalated, the woman threw water in the man’s face and the flight was diverted to Chicago and passengers removed.
Now, I think we can all agree that the water throwing and the fighting is unacceptable behavior. The more subtle question that this episode raised is whether reclining one’s seat is acceptable behavior.
The simple answer is, yes. Sure, it cuts down on the legroom of the person behind you, and makes it more difficult for that person to use the tray table and especially a laptop (the complaint of the man on the Denver flight). But reclining is permissible, it is legal. After all, the seats are designed to recline. One can say that if the airlines did not want you to recline, they would not have designed the seats like that in the first place.
But that still leaves the question: even if it is our right to recline, should we?
Me, I’m a non-recliner. I will only recline my seat if the seat behind me is empty. And I don’t recline for the simple fact that that I don’t like it if the person in front of me reclines. The reclining-seat issue is for me one that is an illustration of Rabbi Hillel’s maxim from the Talmud when he summed up the entire Torah while his student was standing on one foot: “That which is hurtful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
There is a larger value at work here in the reclining-seat debate. There are a great many things in life that are within the realm of acceptable behavior, things that are legal, things that are by right ours to do. But just because we can do something, does not mean we should do it. Yes, I can recline my seat on an airplane. It is my right. But it does not mean I need to exercise it.
There is even a Jewish legal (halachic) principle that our tradition identifies known as lifnim meshurat hadin. Literally meaning “within the line of the law,” it defines extralegal behavior one demonstrates by acting in accordance with the spirit of a law and not just the letter, or by forgoing a privilege one is due for the sake of the benefit of another. When one acts lifnim meshurat hadin, one acts with compassion and kindness towards another, taking into concern the needs and desires of the other and not just of oneself.
Reclining your seat on an airplane is an example of this. Maybe it’s a minor example, but an example nonetheless. And shouldn’t we be just as attentive to a minor case as a major one? Minor acts can beget major acts. If we are not mindful of the impact of the small things, we are sure to grow in our callousness and insensitivity. And truly it is not a small matter when we forgo what we are due for the sake of another.
Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah and the New Year. And as we mark Rosh Hashanah we also begin the period known as the “10 Days of Teshuvah” which bring us through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We examine the ways we personally have erred over the past year, and it is also a time to examine our interpersonal relationships and how we wish to be with one another.
So I offer this as a kavannah (intention) for this year. If your actions, even though socially acceptable and permissible, infringe on another even slightly, maybe make a different choice. Think through all the consequences of your actions, no matter how minor. Try to maximize the benefit of all those involved, and not just your own. Ask yourself, even though I could do this, should I?
And this year, leave your seatbacks in their full, upright position.
I wasn’t at The People’s Climate March in New York on Sunday. I wanted to be, but I was, instead, writing a sermon for the holidays about… you guessed it…. the woeful state of the environment.
And thinking… about the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve took things into their own hands— literally and figuratively. And the more I ponder it, the less I think the story has anything much to do with fruit (yes, I know it wasn’t an apple), or a serpent, or temptation, or Adam’s and Eve’s innocence of foolishness. Nor the idea that they wanted to be god-like. Quite the contrary.
I think it’s about their deciding that they were just fine without listening to or being grateful to God, thank you very much. They asserted their independence—but not because they had to evolve emotionally so we wouldn’t be stuck forever in the garden (to me, a pretty scary thought, since I tend to picture the glassy-eyed beings from H. G. Well’s The Time Machine). But because they decided that they knew better. So they were unceremoniously booted out of paradise, and ever since, we have been abusing the bounty and blessings of what once was perfectly balanced creation. So yes, perhaps the sins of the fathers are passed down to the thousandth generation.
We have gloried (in pride? or in shame?) in our efforts to make the most of the consequences of the expulsion. We thrill at the results of our labors (which were, as you will recall, punishment for the sin in the Garden).
Now, as the unhappy fruits of our self-serving labors are ripening fast, the stakes are higher than ever. And we, as a nation, like Adam and Eve, when they were found out… are hiding and making excuses. And we turn our faces away from all who suffer because of our behavior. Not just the endangered wild plants and animals—but all life all over the world—and for all who are yet to be born.
And all because we, the created, have decided that we know better than our Creator.
We’re choking on that “apple” still.
And now, on Rosh Hashanah, which our sages tell us is the day of the creation of humankind, what do we say again and again? “Hashiveinu Adonai, elecha, v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem” —“Return us to you, Adonai, and we will return, renew our days as in days of old.”
Perhaps this year—and maybe always—we can read his verse as a call to return to the essential teaching of the Garden. To remember that we need to regain humility and stand in awe of our Creator and all creation. That everything we have is a blessing and a gift and that we are obligated to care for and sustain it. In this way, as partners with our Creator, we can renew all creation as in days of old—for ourselves and all living things—l’olam va’ed—for all time.
My mother was born in Germany in 1939. She grew up there, emigrating to the United States in 1968, after she married my father. This was possible because my family of origin is not Jewish—I converted to Judaism in my late 20s. Throughout my childhood my family visited our German relatives frequently in the summer. My mother came from a large family, so there were a lot of people to see.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. By fifth or sixth grade, I was reading about it, and my parents made sure we learned about it. I was about 12 years old when, on one of our vacations in Germany, we visited the Dachau concentration camp site. I knew that my grandfather and my great-uncles were soldiers in the German army, and that one of my great-uncles was killed fighting in Russia. He was 18 years old. None of my relatives were members of the Nazi party, for which I am grateful, but none of them fought as resisters either.
As a teen and a young adult, I struggled with this legacy. In 2009, 10 years after my conversion, I wrote about my identity and what it meant to me. I met my husband in 1990. On his mother’s side, his family was also German, but they were Jewish. His maternal grandparents emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s. Not all of his family got out.
My family in Germany welcomed my husband from the moment they met him, with open arms. There was never any sense of antisemitism from any of them, and when I decided to convert to Judaism, they were equally nonchalant about it. Over the years, I have asked a couple of my great-uncles about the war, and spoken to my grandmother about it, but it was not generally a topic of conversation with my aunts, uncles and cousins.
Then, last February, my husband and I received an email from one of my uncles by marriage, Onkel G—. He said his pastor had preached a sermon that asked the question of what Germans are to do about their past: Is it enough that they are aware of their responsibility and build memorials? The sermon really moved my uncle and made him think. He concluded his message to us by writing to my husband, “I know your parents and grandparents were particularly affected by the Germans’ Jew-hatred. I apologize for the crime which our parents committed.”
This is a man who never knew his father, because his father was killed in the war. I didn’t realize until he sent this email that no one in my family had said anything like this to us before. Onkel G— was a child during the Holocaust. He didn’t have to apologize for it, and my husband didn’t need him to do it. But the fact that he wanted to, and did, was deeply moving for us.
Nothing can turn back the clock. Every one of us who has harmed another or been harmed knows that. Furthermore, our tradition tells us that no one can forgive a sin that was committed against someone else. Nor can one atone for a sin committed by someone else. Nevertheless, a sincere apology for something we didn’t control, but that continues to have impact, can be meaningful.
Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening. May we have the strength both to apologize sincerely and to forgive. May you have a good year and sweet year to come.
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The images of the secular New Year—Times Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakers—are all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanah—a shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honey—are more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.
And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.
Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.
But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.
The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.
My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.
At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.
As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.
As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)—three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.
We all know what this feels like. This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well. We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black child—this time in Ferguson—the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS. We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.
And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down. And in looking down, we missed everything else.
Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer? Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size? Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?
As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)—in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world. According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it. With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.
And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah). In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible. But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.
Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us. In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze. We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships. And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible. The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.
How do we do this?
Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for. Some people keep a gratitude journal. There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same. There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world. As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore. We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong. We can and must work on flourishing—lifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.
Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.
We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakes—it is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.
Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.
Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor —I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?
This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakes—how can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.
We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):
The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”
How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.
Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachia—is a way becoming close to God.
I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.
When I entered rabbinical school, I never imagined I would become a rabbi of an online synagogue. In fact, when I started at the Hebrew Union College in 2003, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist. I blogged during the year I was living in Israel so that my family and friends could see my photos, but even that was pretty uncommon. And while I sometimes spoke to my family using a microphone plugged into my computer, the idea of video-chat didn’t even cross my mind.
Fast forward to 2008. I was being ordained a rabbi and had been working for two years as an intern in an independent congregation, Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio. Congregation Beth Adam came into existence in 1981 and has been known since then as an outside-the-box, evolving, intentional, and thoughtful congregation. Though the congregation only had a few hundred members, its vision statement, re-written in 2006, said that Beth Adam aspired to be “a worldwide Jewish and humanistic resource.”
How could a small congregation in the Midwest be a worldwide resource? The answer was obvious in 2008: by using technology. After surveying lots of demographic research and hosting focus groups, Beth Adam made the bold move to launch an online congregation. At the time, there were very few models for this. But, we knew that times were changing and we needed to create a new access point for Jewish engagement.
So, seven years ago on Rosh Hashanah we launched our online community and a few hundred people participated in that first service. Now, tens of thousands of people join in our High Holidays each year. It is touching to see Jews from around the world sharing their holiday experience.
While other synagogues have started to stream, we are much more than a congregation that streams. Our liturgy is original, reflecting our humanistic voice. And, while our High Holidays are streamed from our bricks-and-mortar sanctuary, our Shabbats are informal chats just for the online community. Our Yom Kippur memorial service includes photos of those being remembered, submitted by our participants. We are open 24/7/365 and offer podcasts, blogs, educational materials, ecards, recipes, discussion boards, and more. We even host “cyber-onegs” after services where people in Cincinnati chat with the people watching online, who often chat among themselves during the entire service. We are happy to serve as rabbis for our online participants. Though I could not have imagined any of this ten years ago, I see how essential it is as part of the ongoing evolution of the Jewish experience.
Many people ask me if an online congregation is somehow less (less good? less real? less meaningful?) than a traditional congregation. My answer is that neither is inherently better than the other. Some will always prefer in-real-life interaction and others will prefer online interaction. Providing diverse options allows people to choose what works best for them. And, what I am sure of is that the words of our participants speak for themselves:
“Today, after finding your website, is the first time since my Bat Mitzvah that I have been excited about being Jewish. My Bat Mitzvah was about 35 years ago.”
“Even as you open your doors to the world, you make us feel personally invited and connected.”
“Whether we connect hearts, hopes and dreams with people face to face in a synagogue or through an internet connection, the people are real and the community becomes real.”
If you’d like to join us for the High Holidays, you can learn more at OurJewishCommunity.org. Wishing you all a sweet New Year!